After more than 20 years in active research and science management, I recently founded my own business as an independent freelance consultant. As “Career Angel”, I support academics in career issues, by one-on-one coaching and through workshops and talks. As “Funding Angel”, I help scientists and companies to acquire funding for R&D projects.
My training. I studied Biology (Diploma, equivalent to a Master’s), and did a PhD afterwards. Both, my Diploma project and my PhD thesis, were in the neurosciences. After my PhD, I added a number of postdocs, including a two-year one abroad (Israel).
What got me into this profession? After having worked as employee for more than two decades, at some point I wanted to have more freedom in my professional life, in order to meet my wishes, pursue my own ideas and follow my passions. At the same time, I felt that the experiences that I had gathered by the time would serve as a solid basis for the kind business that I was envisioning. When the opportunity arose and several personal factors added up, I immediately jumped into it, and haven’t regretted it for a second!
Most important steps and activities along my professional way towards this freelancing positions:
- Solid scientific training, incl. several postdocs and having lead a research group myself convince my customers that I know the research business and my field.
- Starting from the times of my own doctoral studies, I have taken special interest in training & career issues for scientists, leading to several appointments as coordinator of study programs and a specialized training on career counseling.
- In many years of practical experience in science management and administration, I could gather in-depth and insider knowledge on public research funding, and acquired a two-digit million Euros worth of funding.
- Supporting several companies and working in a neurotech startup taught me important lessons on R&D-driven businesses.
- A strong professional network in the (neuro)science and neurotechnology community, both in academics and in companies is an important resource that I can tap into.
My typical workday actually does not really exist – there is very little routine in my daily business. Most of the time, I work from my home office. Which gives me the freedom to take breaks whenever I need them, and to pick up work again whenever the time is right for me. At the same time, I don’t lose time by regularly commuting back and forth between home and a workplace. But I also do undertake quite a bit of travelling to meet my customers and attend events organized by others or myself.
Technically speaking, a substantial part of my workday comprises what you would call office and computer work: e-mails, drafting documents, preparing materials for presentations, phone calls, teleconferences, etc. … But, of course, doing consulting also means a lot of direct personal interaction with people, like, visiting a customer to discuss a grant project, one-on-one career coaching sessions, attending or teaching workshops, giving talks, and the like.
On top of all these activities that you would normally call work (i.e., for which I charge my customers), there is typically almost an equal amount of time that I spend on “business housekeeping” kind of activities – things like marketing, taking care of your accounting (even if you hire a tax accountant, there is a minimal amount of accounting you have to do yourself), organizing my trips, getting and maintaining equipment, … the list goes on.
What I like most about my current position is the freedom I have in deciding from moment to moment what exactly I want to do and how exactly I want to do it – following my own needs, preferences, and my passions. I also I tremendously enjoy being able to integrate my passion for design, art and craft into my work – be it in marketing actions, on my website, or in designing material for my courses and talks. Engaging this part of my personality in my work dramatically increases the joy of work that I experience on a day-to-day basis. Plus, I feel my work makes a real difference. With the funding that I help to acquire, projects can be advanced that I really find important. And in my career consulting, I often feel that people have important insights, which potentially change their whole outlook on work and maybe even life in general. That is tremendously satisfying.
I guess what I like less about my job are the deadlines that come with many grant applications. Thinking again, though, it is not really the deadlines themselves that disturb me – I only get a little nervous if external factors (like if I am missing feedback from someone else to be able to complete the work) pose a risk to meet them… Luckily, though, grant writing is only part of my work, and not all grant programs have deadlines!
The 3 biggest skills that I need most for my day-to-day work are: communication, communication, communication! Attracting new customers and negotiating contracts, moderating communication between project partners in order to arrive at a consistent grant proposal, giving workshops and talks and, of course, one-on-one consulting – the basis for successfully mastering all these tasks is efficient, effective and empathic communication. If you think about it, even streamlining a grant text requires a lot of communication skills – after all, it’s purpose is to convince the reader that this project is worth while investing in!
In the future, as already in the present, the most challenging aspects of being a freelancer to my mind are the following two:
- Marketing. There is no way around it – continuous marketing efforts are absolutely indispensible – if you don’t like that part or don’t find a way to do it such that you like it, DON’T become a freelancer!
- Living with variable and insecure income. If you do not have a cushion of savings for about a year worth of your personal and business expenses, or if you have difficulties in not spending the money you earn immediately, you will most probably not be able to endure the normal ups and downs of a typical freelancer’s income.
For my own freelance business, my scientific training in the neurosciences and a solid background in the other natural sciences certainly is very helpful, I would say even indispensible (at least the way I do my business). But, apart from that knowledge of facts, to my mind, the most helpful skill that I acquired in my academic training is critical thinking: Not taking anything for granted, not shying away from hard or seemingly stupid questions, and the ability to raise points that my customers did not take into account before. In my opinion, these are most valuable assets I have to offer my clients. And these are the things that have the biggest impact on advancing any given project or solving any kind of problem that I deal with – be it raising and dealing with a potential reviewer’s criticism, or making my career clients acquire new views on the particular problem that they are dealing with, opening up new solutions they were unable to come up with alone.
If I was to start my studies all over again, I would probably spend more time learning about employment options for scientists ou
tside of the academic world. At my time of studies, university students were not exposed at all to this job market, and our professors did not find this a relevant topic. After all, for them, getting a professorship was almost a no-brainer. If you finished a reasonable PhD, did a good postdoc in a recognized lab afterwards, and published a handful of papers, you were all set for a thriving academic career. In the meantime, however, things have changed sbstantially. The ratio between PhD students and permanent professorships currently is at least 10:1, and this situation is not likely to change in the near future. Of course, universities are well aware of that fact. But while some address the issue more head-on (e.g., by establishing designated career counseling offices for their graduates), many professors still believe that non-academic careers are not at all what they should prepare their students for. And once these graduates turn their backs on the academic world, they usually do not show up at a university on a regular basis any more. Thus, they become sort of invisible and difficult to approach for the typical student. This striking knowledge gap is actually, as you may have guessed, one of my major motivations for this project…
So far for this short post. I’d be happy to answer any questions that you may have – either by leaving a comment below, or by personal communication through my profiles in professional networks (Xing, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, AcademiaNet) or my freelance business website.